Saturday, October 4, 2008

Starship Troopers 3: Marauder Review


Starship Troopers 3: Marauder returns the series to its action/war roots (after a diversion into horror in the first sequel) as Casper Van Dien returns as Johnny Rico back to kill more bugs. Jolene Blalock also stars.

Pros:
- It sure is nice to have Casper Van Dien back as Johnny Rico and I like that they've (somewhat) logically aged the character since the first movie's events. Van Dien is easily the best part of the movie.
- The story itself is silly but it's better to have the war against the bugs than the awful horror story of #2.

Cons:
- It's really a backhanded compliment to say that Casper Van Dien is the best thing about this movie...it's never a good thing if Casper Van Dien is the best thing about your movie.
- Jolene Blalock and all the supporting actors for that matter are simply terrible.
- Subtlety is not something one would often accuse Starship Troopers 1 director Paul Verhoeven of being good at, but Edward Neumeier (who wrote and directed this one) makes Verhoeven seem to have a master's touch. The film's politics are so blatant, and out of place, that it's hard to be anything but disappointed. The Federal Network 'news segments' intercut during the original film are the best parts of the movie, here they're nearly intolerable as Neumeier beats you over the head with his agenda.

Verdict:
- The original Starship Troopers is one of my all time favorite guilty pleasure movies (and I really don't think it's anywhere near as bad as its reputation) so I'm really disappointed at how this one turned out. The first sequel turned its back on the first film's formula, embracing a silly horror movie-esque scenario, and it turned out terribly. I was sadly disappointed that this 'return to form' failed to recapture really any of the magic of the first film. I can't really recommend this at all.

Overall Score: 3/10

Journey to the Center of the Earth Review


Journey to the Center of the Earth is the newest adaptation of the famed Jules Verne novel, this time in 3D. It stars Brendan Fraser as a man searching for his brother, Josh Hutcherson as Fraser's nephew and Anita Briem as their tour guide.

Pros:
- The movie has a great and enjoyable sense of energy and wonder. It's really a theme park ride expanded to full feature length.
- Special effect guru Eric Brevig's touch at director allows the movie to embrace silly VFX to a surprisingly enjoyable effect.
- Fraser, perpetually exuberant and youthful, is the perfect lead for a somewhat absurd story like this.
- This movie has given me faith that 3D is viable. The Real3D system (which uses 3D glasses that aren't uncomfortable to wear) is far more effective than the mediocre displays of the past. The 3D here, though gimmicky, makes the whole experience so much more fun. Dinosaurs, mutant venus fly traps, rocks that float on air and lava explosions are all more fun in 3D.

Cons:
- While it's nice to see someone try to come up with a 'new' take on Journey to the Center of the Earth, the notion of Vernians (yes, people who follow the writings of Jules Verne as true) is pretty silly.
- The screenplay is mediocre and the supporting performances are nothing to write home about.
- I can't imagine this would have been half as enjoyable in 2D.

Verdict:
- It's not a 'good' movie, but I found Journey to the Center of the Earth perfectly enjoyable. It's also a nice showcase for the future of 3D.

Overall Score: 6/10

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army Review


Hellboy II tells the continued adventure of Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). Director Guillermo del Toro returns to the helm as Hellboy and friends are now tasked with preventing the angry supernatural Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) from exacting vengeance on humanity (by awakening the titular Golden Army) for our breach of an old human-fantasy creature treaty with our disregard for the environment.

For my money Guillermo del Toro is as brilliant a fantasy director as there is today and I saw with certainty that this film (and its underrated predecessor) would have been nothing short of disastrous in the hands of a lesser auteur. Del Toro opens the film during the Second World War on Christmas Eve as Hellboy is told the bedtime story of the Golden Army by his "father" (John Hurt reprising his role from the first film), a story of course which will inevitably come into play later in the film. In the hands of a lesser director this scene, there is something quite absurd about a juvenile red demon at a small World War II base hearing a bedtime story, the film could have fallen apart in the first few minutes. Del Toro has a wonderful touch, however, with his actors and in the wonderful way he integrates fantasy and reality (not just in this series but in other films like Pan's Labyrinth, one of the best films of the decade, The Devil's Backbone and the underrated Blade II) which makes the whole thing tenable.

The actors, in costume or not, are all magnificently cast and play their roles with just the right mix of humor and gravity. As far as I'm concerned Ron Perlman was born to play this role, his red demon with a love for kittens and Baby Ruth bars is as human and empathetic as any on screen this past summer. There's something deeply sympathetic, and believable in the way Perlman and del Toro present it, about Hellboy downing a beer in the shower after a fight with his girlfriend. I think particular note should be given to Anna Walton and Doug Jones. Doug Jones is an incredible physical actor who previously had been limited to acting only behind a creature suit. With great success Jones played most of the creatures in del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth Walton, but other actors did the voice work. Likewise in the first Hellboy and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer Jones did great physical work only to be voice dubbed over (by David Hyde Pierce and Laurence Fishburne respectively). Here Jones finally gets to voice his own character and, no disrespect to Pierce who did fine voice work in the first film, he does a phenomenal job. Beyond that Jones brings an unbelievable otherworldly quality to his movements that make Abe Sapien seem both strangely alien but also compelling organic. Walton plays the sister of Luke Goss' Prince Nuada, Princess Nuala who becomes a love interest for Jones' Abe. Together they have such sweet chemistry... I have to say I'm rather stunned that my two favorite love stories this year involve the relationships of two robots (Wall-E) and of a fish-man and a golden princess.

Throughout the film del Toro crates masterful scenes for his characters. In an incredibly well designed homage to the cantina scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, our heroes visit a fantastical marketplace (located, of all places, under the Brooklyn Bridge). The entire segment is a feast for the eyes and a tribute to the unbelievable costume, CGI and make-up work on display in the film. Another great scene, which I can't imagine anyone but del Toro pulling off, has Perlman and Jones drunkenly singing about the trials of love. Del Toro, and his DP Guillermo Navarro, have an absolute gift for crafting incredible imagery which is on display at no moment more than when Hellboy and crew walk through the shimmering aftermath of Hellby's battle with a plant monster. Breathtaking stuff!

I found the film to have two weak aspects of note. The first is the performance of Luke Goss. Compared to Perlman, Jones and Walton, Goss really fails to bring the same sort of emotion and believability to his role as the other actors buried in costume. The other weak aspect is actually the film's climax. Much like in the first film's climax, del Toro seems to lose his characters a bit as the action really picks up. Considering what a masterful job del Toro has done throughout the rest of the film it is surprising to see the film's penultimate moment devolve into a bombastic mix of stunts and CGI. All this is not to say the climax is poorly done, just that it's a step down from the greatness of the rest of the film.

Overall Score: 8/10

Futurama: Beast with a Billion Backs Review


Futurama: Beast with a Billion Backs is the second of four post-series Futurama movies, following last year's Bender's Big Score. It tells, among others, the story of an alien monster that comes to Earth and tries to capture all of humanity in its euphoric grasp.

Pros:
- Despite a number of relatively aimless subplots (like Bender's time in the League of Robots), this Futurama film tells a better cohesive story than the first.
- Small beloved characters get nice little roles, but the focus thankfully remains on the principle players.
- Put simply it's nice to have more Futurama, one of the wittiest shows of the last two decades.

Cons:
- As the first film also suggested, Futurama is likely best suited in 22 minute blocks instead of the roughly four episodes smushed into a movie here.
- As already mentioned the story isn't exactly cohesive and satisfying (which is a function of the fact that the movie will eventually be split into episodes for rebroadcast).

Verdict:
- While it isn't the perfect Futurama movie, it's always nice to have more of it. Ideally this set of four movies (the next two will be released in November '08 and early '09) will sell well enough to merit a full resurrection for the show on a major network.
- Futurama fans will love this, but neophytes can definitely get a taste of what made the show so great from this movie.

Overall Score: 7/10

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Love Guru Review


The movie tells the story of a love guru (Mike Myers) who comes to America to fix the relationship problems of an NHL player (Romany Malco) at the behest of the team's owner (Jessica Alba).

Pros:
- Stephen Colbert is absolutely hilarious in a far too small role as a Toronto Maple Leafs commentator. His scenes were the only thing that dragged me through.
- It's less than 90 minutes counting the credits.

Cons:
- Having watched this movie it's very difficult to believe I ever though Mike Myers was funny. He spends the bulk of the movie mugging for the camera almost as though he's begging for laughs.
- The supporting actors often seem somewhat embarrassed to be in this project. There are numerous scenes where Jessica Alba looks visibly uncomfortable to be on screen with Myers. Romany Malco and Justin Timberlake are both very talented individuals and deserve so much better.
- The material is crude and sophomoric in a tremendously unfunny way. How many dumb fart and dick jokes can you possibly tell in 90 minutes? I'd rather die than watch Love Guru again, but if you feel motivated you can watch and count to get an idea.

Verdict:
- This movie was absolutely terrible and should signify the death knell of Mike Myers' non-Shrek career as a leading man. I can't possibly imagine the upcoming Austin Powers 4 will be any good. Colbert is hilarious, unfortunately he is on screen for maybe five of the film's 90 mintues and it sure isn't worth sitting through for that. Don't see this movie.

Overall Score: 2/10

Get Smart's Bruce and Lloyd: Out of Control Review


Bruce and Lloyd: Out of Control is a spin-off of this summer's Get Smart following two CONTROL techies played by Masi Oka (Heroes) and Nate Torrence (Studio 60).

Pros:
- The direct-to-DVD venue gives an appealing actor like Masi Oka an opportunity to play the leading man and he does a pretty solid job.
- Jayma Mays and Masi Oka, as on Heroes and despite her far too small role on the show, make for a delightful couple. The two have wonderful chemistry together and their scenes are genuinely amusing.
- Anne Hathaway's cameo is hilarious, she's funnier here in one small scene than in all of Get Smart.

Cons:
- Nate Torrence is not as appealing nor as charismatic as Masi Oka which leads to his primary scenes feeling rather bland.
- Like most straight to video releases, the direction, music and general production values are quite poor.
- The film's plot is nonsense and the relevance of the characters would probably lack clarity without having seen Get Smart.

Verdict:
- It's a pretty awful movie but Out of Control has a few laughs and a cute lead couple in Masi Oka and Jayma Mays. Definitely worth seeing if you enjoyed Carell's big screen Get Smart or if you enjoy Masi Oka's work on Heroes, otherwise I'd probably skip it.

Overall Score: 4/10

Friday, August 1, 2008

Finding Amanda Review


Finding Amanda is the story of an alcoholic gambling addict (Matthew Broderick) who goes to Las Vegas to convince his prostitute niece (Brittany Snow) to go to rehab in order to save his marriage (his wife is played by Maura Tierney).

Pros:
- Brittany Snow has become a really great actress, even in junk like Prom Night (in Prom Night she was actually so good that it made the films many flaws that much more noticeable). Here Snow is strong as perky prostitute who isn't quite as happy as she lets on, even though her character is quite unbelievable.
- Matthew Broderick, playing way against type, does a good job with his scummy character. The problem is that he's just an unlikeable louse that it's difficult to care about what happens to him after the millionth time he lies to those that care about him.
- Maura Tierney does a good job in a smaller role as Broderick's wife.

Cons:
- While Peter Tolan (co-creator of Rescue Me) has a knack for witty dialogue, he seems incapable of juggling the humor and dark drama found here. I definitely think, however, that Tolan will have a long directing career.
- The characters are really quite revolting, to Nip/Tuck sorts of levels, which makes it difficult to care how their story turns out. If the film itself were made more compelling then the appeal of the characters would be irrelevant, but here it's just so difficult to care.
- The characters are also remarkably stupid and make decisions at such a poor level that it's hard to believe either could achieve much success at anything, even at prostitution (let alone as a TV producer, like Broderick's character).

Verdict:
- Finding Amanda isn't a bad movie and it has some strong acting and witty dialogue but it isn't enough to overcome the wild fluctuations in tone and unlikeable characters.

Overall Score: 5/10

Superhero Movie Review


Superhero Movie is a spoof of the recent comic book movies, especially Spider-Man.

Pros:
- Though it's far from good Superhero Movie at least shows there is still hope for the spoof genre despite the best efforts of Jason Friedberg and Adam Seltzer (Epic Movie/Meet the Spartans etc) to forever ruin the genre.
- Drake Bell and Sara Paxton (who was the highlight of last year's middling Sydney White) make for a likable lead pair.
- Some of the jokes hit home quite well. Jeffrey Tambor and Brent Spiner have nice smaller roles.

Cons:
- A pretty high percentage of the humor falls flat, but even when it fails it's not as offensively stupid as the Friedberg/Seltzer disgraces.
- Leslie Nielson and Christopher McDonald are really not good here, though, in fairness, both are given a lot of terrible stupid scenes to play.
- It's simply not a good movie.

Verdict:
- Superhero Movie is junk. It does, at least, have a few laughs though and shows that there is still hope for a funny spoof movie in the future.

Overall Score: 3/10

Batman: Gotham Knight Review


Batman: Gotham Knight is a direct-to-video collection of six short stories set between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Pros:
- The disparate talent involved in the project leads to a variety of creative and original takes on Gotham's Dark Knight.
- The collection's strongest, and most tied integrally tied to the Nolan Batuniverse mythology, short is In Darkness Dwells, from David Goyer the writer of Batman Begins. Bringing back the Scarecrow and adding Batvillain Killer Croc the story most closely resembles the 'feel' of the Nolan films and tels the most compelling, if underdeveloped, story.
- Most of the stories have, at least, a few moments of interest.

Cons:
- The animation is not of particularly high quality.
- The quality of the stories varies RADICALLY from story to story.
- Have I Got a Story For You, the film's first short, is so awful that it almost made me quit on the rest of them.

Verdict:
- Like all of these types of animated collections (The Animatrix comes to mind) the quality of the individual short films is all over the place. It's definitely worth seeing for hardcore Batman fans, but only a few of the stories are otherwise worthy. I really feel like this compilation should have turned out better.

Overall Score: 5/10

Hancock Review


Hancock is about a disgruntled superhero (Will Smith) who gets an image makeover from a publicist (Jason Bateman) and his wife (Charlize Theron).

Pros:
- Will Smith gives yet another strong performance. His Hancock is believably lonely, surly and flawed. He really does the best possible considering the material.
- Jason Bateman is great in support, he's one of the finest character actors in the business.
- The film's first half, despite some deep flaws, is pretty damn compelling.
- The film's underlying premise, of an anti-social superhero who needs an image makeover, is a good one.

Cons:
- About half through the film there is a giant plot twist that is so poorly executed (and obviously telegraphed) that it ruined the entire rest of the film for me.
- The film's climax and denouement are inept at best.
- What the hell happened to Peter Berg? His Friday Night Lights is my favorite football movie, The Kingdom was at least competent if utterly unspectacular, but Hancock is ineptly directed. Berg positions the camera so close to the actors' faces that it's often difficult to tell exactly what the hell is going on. Peter, move the damn camera out.
- Some of the humor is both foul and inept, such as when Hancock inserts the head of one prisoner up another's ass.
- Charlize Theron often seems confused though I hesitate to blame her because her character is so ineptly written.

Verdict:
- Hancock has an underlying premise that's pretty damn good and a strong cast, it's too bad the idea is poorly executed.

Overall Score: 4/10

Step Up 2 the Streets Review


Step Up 2 the Streets tells the story of a girl who is forced to leave the streets to join an artistic school and brings her own brand of dance with her.

Pros:
- Some of the dance scenes are surprisingly exciting.
- Though I wouldn't call them good actors leads Briana Evigan and Robert Hoffman have good chemistry and seem to at least be trying.

Cons:
- The story is as cliche and by the numbers as any I've ever seen following all the typical traits of an American romantic comedy and a sports movie perfectly.
- It's sad when the Channing Tatum cameo is one of the most compelling scenes in a movie.
- The non-lead actors are almost entirely terrible.

Verdict:
- It was much better than I expected but it's still a pretty poor movie. You can certainly find a better way to spend 98 minutes of your life.

Overall Score: 4/10

Rumor has it that the next outing for this insanely profitable series will be in 3D.

Wanted Review


Wanted tells the story of a young man drawn out of his pathetic life into a mysterious world of bullet-bending assassins.

Pros:
- Incredibly well designed, creative and exciting action scenes. Director Timor Bekmanbetov is incredibly creative in the direction of these scenes.
- James McAvoy, a tremendous young actor especially in Atonement, gives a fun and believable performance as he transitions from a nobody loser to a bad ass assassin.
- Angelina Jolie gives an enjoyable if typical performance.
- It's nice to see Morgan Freeman play a bit differently than his typical role.
- Unlike seemingly every recent event movie, it doesn't set itself up for a necessary sequel.

Cons:
- It's not a 'good' movie by any stretch of the imagination.
- Did you know the 'fates' send instructions on who deserves to be assassinated through giant factory sized looms? I didn't either. The plot in Wanted is, shall we say, a bit stupid.
- Why does the character in the beginning action scene have superpowers far beyond those of any other character we see?

Verdict:
- It's not an objectively great movie but Wanted was some of the most fun I've had a theater all year.

Overall Score: 8/10

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wall-E Review


Wall-E tells the story of the last robot left behind on Earth after humanity abandons the desecrated planet.

Pros:
- Wall-E himself is the single cutest and most well-designed animated character I've ever seen. Just the sight of him makes me happy.
- The first 45 minutes of Wall-E, almost dialogue free, are some of the best I've seen in any film...ever. Anyone not moved by Wall-E's near melancholic longing for company, and his pursuit of his I-Pod inspired love interest, Eve, has a heart of stone. I would have been content, no...content is the wrong word, overjoyed is more like it, just watching Wall-E and Eve wander around Earth for three straight hours.
- The film's animation is absolutely gorgeous. The stellar quality of the animation is perhaps best on display in the incredible outer space 'dance' Wall-E and Eve have outside of the humans' spaceship colony.
- Pixar is the most consistently great studio around, even their weakest film, in my opinion, Cars, compares favorably with the best work of most other animation studios. Wall-E is a proud addition to the studios heritage and stands tall in the upper echelon of Pixar's work: Toy Story 1 and 2, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo.

Cons:
- The film's second half, and the introduction of the humans, seems to sag a little bit. However, I'm quite certain that it feels weaker less because of any real flaws but more because of just how unbelievably good the first half is.

Verdict:
- Wall-E is one of the best animated movies of all time and a shoo-in for my top 10 at the end of the year. Wall-E, himself, is the best designed character I've ever seen and his love story is one of the most touching. I can't recommend this highly enough.

Overall Score: 9/10

Pathology Review


Pathology tells the story of a medical student (Milo Ventimiglia) drawn into a dark game of students killing people as in manners as untraceable as possible.

Pros:
- Ventimiglia gives a decent enough performance in the lead role.
- The story, surprisingly, manages to keep Ventimiglia's lead character as a much grayer and less heroic character than might have been expected. Generally a movie like this would see the lead as a hero fighting the evil around him, here Ventimiglia's character is far darker and, perhaps, more compelling than the material deserves.

Cons:
- Nearly every member of the supporting cast, especially lead villain Michael Weston, give performances that are amateurish at best.
- The premise, in and of itself, is really quite stupid.
- There are plot holes you could fly a 747 through.
- Despite Ventimiglia's interesting performance, the film's structure and plotting is so poorly thought out that the film is a labor to get through.
- The direction, editing and general production values are poor.

Verdict:
- Ventimiglia tries (and gives me hope for his career after Heroes) but the material is simply not very good.

Overall Score: 3/10

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Strangers Review


The Strangers, starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, tells the tale of a young couple terrorized by the strangers outside their house

Pros:
- The acting from both Tyler and Speedman is really quite remarkable. Speedman's difficulty in emotionally deal with Tyler's rejection of his marriage proposal is very believable. Tyler is believably terrified throughout, but she doesn't have as much emotional material to work with.
- Director Bryan Bertino masterfully frames his shots throughout. Bertino also does a tremendous job of ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable level by the end of the film. Bertino also wrote the film and his screenplay is not half bad.
- Assuming it is the film's goal, The Strangers did a remarkable job of making me feel uneasy.

Cons:
- The biggest problem with the film is that it didn't feel scary at all, just mortifying. In the torture porn movies (Saw, Hostel, etc) there is a moment of queasiness just before each disgusting thing happens, The Strangers is like having that feeling stretched out for 90 straight minutes.
- The ending is a letdown.

Verdict:
- The Strangers is surprisingly well made and incredibly tense, but it all just amounts to an exercise in sadism.

Overall Score: 6/10

The Eye Review


Jessica Alba plays a blind woman who begins to see scary things after an eye transplant in this Asian horror remake.
Pros:
- Jessica Alba actually isn't terrible here (which isn't meant to say she's good).
- It's better than One Missed Call.
- It has some pretty interesting images and a moderately exciting climax.
- Alessandro Nivola is decent in support.

Cons:
- Horrifyingly stupid explanation.
- Why are mediocre Asian horror movies remade into poor American horror movies so frequently?
- Parker Posey gives one of the worst performances of an otherwise strong career (but is still better than Alba).
- Rade Serbidzija embarrasses himself, though the material does him no favors.

Verdict:
- Certainly not the worst you'll see in the genre, The Eye is almost competently acted and directed, though its silly plot and dumb explanations make for a pretty middling movie.

Overall Score: 4/10

The Happening Review


M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening concerns a mysterious ailment afflicting humanity wherein people across the country mysteriously begin committing suicide.
Pros:
- There some beautiful and haunting images here especially in the early segments.
- John Leguizamo gives an alright performance in support.
- At least it's more tolerable than Lady in the Water, perhaps because of the copious unintentional comedy. I couldn't stop laughing when the zoo employee feeds himself to his lions.

Cons:
- The story (and explanation) is TREMENDOUSLY stupid
- Mark Wahlberg gives easily the worst performance of his career, his pronunciation of words is unnervingly incompetent.
- Zooey Deschannel is terrible here.
- I hate M. Night Shyamalan's writing an unbelievable amount.
- To say that there are a plotholes is an understatement akin to saying a handful of people died in World War II.

Verdict:
- I really can't stand Night nor his films. He is a pretentious ass in interviews and his work has been on a steady decline throughout his career. I think it's fair at this point to say that Sixth Sense was an aberration and Lady in the Water, The Village and The Happening are the sort of work we should expect in Night's future.

Overall Score: 3/10

The Incredible Hulk Review


Pros:
- It's much better than Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk mess.
- Edward Norton makes a nice replacement for Eric Bana, he's one of the finest actors working today and does good work here.
- Tim Roth is a big time change of pace from the usual comic book villain and I think his Abomination really works.
- The film has a nice sense of humor and a suitable (but not slavish) devotion and appreciation for the source material.
- I love the Tony Stark cameo and the continued efforts (started with the Nick Fury cameo in Iron Man) to integrate the whole Marvel universe and build towards The Avengers in 2011. I also appreciate, like in Iron Man, subtle hints were dropped to open the way for a sequel.

Cons:
- Liv Tyler's Betty Ross is a really vanilla character.
- Poor William Hurt hasn't given a particularly good performance in a long time, this is no exception.
- I hate CGI, there's WAY too much of it here.
- The movie feels kind of cheaply made and it's disturbing that it has a bigger budget than significantly more impressive event movies like Iron Man or Transformers.

Verdict:
- While it's no Iron Man, Incredible Hulk is a solid but unspectacular comic book movie that has at least managed to restore my faith that the big green fella CAN make for an effective film.
- I'm EXTREMELY curious to see the less commercial more introspective cut that Norton had wanted and the hour longer director's cut that will appear on the DVD/Blu-Rays. Marvel had mandated they release this present, more commercial, version.

Overall Score: 7/10

You Don't Mess with the Zohan Review


Pros:
- Surprisingly funny
- Really funny riff on political wives
- It's sad that Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow's political 'unity' messages feel less forced than most of the political focused movies we see lately.
- Solid (but predictable) Adam Sandler performance and decent supporting work by John Turturro and Emmanuelle Chiriqui

Cons:
- Very very dumb
- I feel somewhat guilty recommending this

Verdict:
- Not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but for something so dumb I sure did laugh a lot...

Overall Score: 6/10

Kung Fu Panda Review


Pros:
- Gorgeously animated in a wonderfully designed setting
- The humor is, thankfully, timeless and universal instead of based largely on pop culture references like many of the previous Dreamworks CGI movies (the Shreks, Shark Tale, Bee Movie, Madagascar)
- Great voice work from a truly impressive assemblage of talent (Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, David Cross, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogan and Lucy Liu)
- Beautiful score

Cons:
- By-the-numbers and uncompelling story
- Some of the impressive voice acting cast is criminally underused, especially Jackie Chan and Seth Rogan

Verdict:
- Not the best animated movie you'll ever see but Kung Fu Panda is definitely funny and beautiful to look at.

Overall Score: 7/10

Monday, June 30, 2008

Meet the Spartans Review


I must be some sort of masochist for having sat all the way through this piece of trash. My hatred of the co-writer/co-director pair of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer knows no end. The tandem, also responsible for such cinematic luminaries as Epic Movie and Scary Movie 4, are the worst director's currently employed. The direction is inept. The writing is putrid. The acting is humiliating. I loathe everything about this movie and I hope that a condition of resolving the potential SAG/AMPTP strike is that Friedberg and Seltzer are banned from making films so that no more careers can be damaged by their involvement.

Overall Score: 1/10

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sex and the City Review


While I certainly grant that I, as a straight male, am not the intended audience of this, Sex and the City is, objectively, not a very good movie. When an average episode of the series runs for less than 30 minutes and the film runs for two and half hours there are obviously some issues of an overgrown narrative. Having seen a handful of episodes from the TV run of the SATC I say with some certainty that something has gone awry in translation.

On the whole SATC feels like those putrid ten minutes at the end of a typical American romantic comedy when the couple splits up only to inevitably get back together from some foolhardy grand gesture. Only the ten minute plot is drawn out to roughly fifteen times the length it should be. I don't buy the argument that I should need to embrace the 'fashion' and 'style' of the movie to enjoy it, that's specious. Also, if a wedding dress with a dead bird headpiece is what constitutes style then I'm content to not be in style.

I don't know when Sarah Jessica Parker stopped knowing how to act, but she fails to deliver a single recognizably human emotion here. Kristin Davis, who has great energy and is a magnetic screen presence, is left with almost nothing to do. I found Cynthia Nixon's character so unlikeable that I frankly just didn't give a damn about anything that happened to her. How fans have supported a character like that for years is beyond me. I must say, however, that I really enjoyed Kim Cattrall's work here. Cattrall manages to bring the most life to any of the roles, her emotional scenes are the most genuine and her wit is sharp. Her "you made a little joke" line to Parker was my favorite moment of the movie. Chris Noth's Mr. Big is so entirely unbelievable as a human being that I could barely watch his scenes.

Poor Jennifer Hudson is reduced to playing Parker's help in a manner that is more than a little stereotypical. The male supporting players (Jason Lewis, Evan Handler and David Eigenberg) all do a nice job but have almost nothing to work with. Perhaps I just don't get it and, certainly, SATC isn't directed at my demographic; but objectively it just isn't a very good movie.

Overall Score: 4/10

Friday, June 13, 2008

Ranking the Marvel Movies

As prelude to my Incredible Hulk review - which will be posted when I catch up on my backlog of unreviewed films - I present a ranking of the modern Marvel movies (starting in 1998 with Blade).

22. Blade: Trinity
21. The Invincible Iron Man (Animated)
20. Elektra
19. Hulk
19. Ghost Rider
18. The Punisher
17. Ultimate Avengers (Animated)
16. Ultimate Avengers 2 (Animated)
15. Blade
14. Daredevil
13. Spider-Man 3
12. Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme (Animated)
11. X-Men: The Last Stand
10. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
9. Daredevil: Director's Cut (definitely different enough to constitute a seperate ranking)
8. Blade 2
7. The Incredible Hulk
6. Fantastic Four
5. X-Men
4. Spider-Man
3. X2: X-Men United
2. Iron Man
1. Spider-Man 2 (the 2.1 DVD version is a better movie, though not different enough to constitute a new ranking)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Savage Grace Review


To be honest I had almost no interest in the subject matter of this film, the true story of a perverted upper crust American family in the post-WWII period onwards. I was drawn to the project because of Julianne Moore's lead role, one of the best actresses working today. Moore tries her best with the material but even she can't save it.

Undercut by boring direction, melodramatic music and a middling pretentious script, Savage Grace is rarely compelling. Julianne Moore seems to really try with a difficult and complex role, unfortunately she has nothing to work with either from the material or from her costars. Eddie Redmayne, playing Moore's son, is potentially the least compleling screen presense of ever seen. Exuding a vaguely unsettling feeling, Redmayne (who is fairly uncomfortable to look at) lacks the chops to sell this difficult role. He does little to develop or make believable the character, instead only the character's actions exist create any development - not the performance. Stephen Dillane is left with almost nothing to work with and also comes off poorly.

I can't really recommend this to anyone. Moore is adequate in the lead, however everything else about the film is subpar and the subject matter is highly uncomfortable, skip it.

Overall Score: 3/10

Diary of the Dead Review


I would say the most pleasant surprise in Diary of the Dead is that the format (first person participatory camera) doesn't feel anywhere near as stale as I expected. Directed by zombie master George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead), Diary marks Romero's attempt to put a slightly different spin on the zombie formula. Having already seen this limited filming style used once to surprising success in Cloverfield this year, I didn't expect to particularly enjoy Diary, especially considering the horrid misstep that was Romero's recent return to the zombie genre, Land of the Dead.

The acting, from a bunch of unknowns, is unspectacular but well suited to the genre. A zombie movie doesn't need a great thespian in the lead to be successful. The 'active-camera' POV helps achieve a sense of immersion and immediacy to the material. Considering people put various fight videos (and worse) on the internet - an idea this year's Untraceable interestingly delved into - it doesn't seem all that unbelievable that in our youtube obsessed society people have become perhaps too obsessed with filming life around them and the suffering of others (a point Romero beats us over the head with).

The film's biggest achilles heel (and, perhaps, the biggest issue in all zombie movies) is that it doesn't seem to quite know how to end the picture. Our surviving protags spend most of the last act locked in a futuristic house (seemingly rejected from the first Resident Evil film) before the film peters out to a weak climax and denoument. There is something intrinsically disheartening about the idea that everyone who dies will come back as brain-dead zombie which often makes it difficult for these movies to end in a satisfying way, they often feel like an exercise is sadism. Diary, unfortunately, is no exception.

Somewhat more interesting than the typical horror or zombie film, I found Romero's use of the gimmick 'active-camera' far more effective than I would have expected. Unfortunately due to the success of Cloverfield we can assuredly expect a tidal wave of these Blair Witch-esque films to invade theaters (Quarantine with Jennifer Carpenter, for example, which comes out in October); I can only imagine the quality will continue to decline with each use of this inherently limited style.

Overall Score: 6/10

Recount Review


Having fallen well behind on my reviews the process starts again with somewhat briefer takes on the films I've seen recently.

I was a bit reluctant to watch Recount because the dilemmas arising from its subject matter are still far too fresh and relevant. The frustration is still too present in my day-to-day life. But I found it to be an extremely enjoyable, and even exciting, take on Gore v. Bush.

Structured so as to focus primarily on the legal battle on Gore's side of the spectrum (though not short-shrifting the Bush side), I found Recount's ability to make well-known material feel fresh, tense and exciting. Even more surprising is that Recount comes from Jay Roach who is known mainly for the Meet the Parents and Austin Powers series. Roach benefits from a surprisingly large number of strong performances.

Tom Wilkinson, fresh off success in HBO's other big project the first half of this year, John Adams, does a good job humanizing and bringing to life head Bush employee James Baker. Roach allows the performance to work so that Wilkinson comes off as far more than the snearing villain the role could have devolved into. Laura Dern is, as usual, superb. Here she wonderfully mimics the all too memorable over-her-head mannerisms of Floridian decision maker Katherine Harris.

On the Gore side three performances in particular standout. Kevin Spacey does his best work in years as Ron Klain, head of the Gore campaign's efforts. Like so many of the actors here his character feels real. Denis Leary brings life to his scenes as foul-mouthed campaigner worker Michael Whouley, though, let's be fair, the role isn't really a stretch from Tommy Gavin on Rescue Me. I think special notice should go to Ed Begley Jr, playing the lead attorney, David Boies, for Gore who actually argues Gore v. Bush before the Supreme Court. The character could easily have felt like a walking cliche, yet somehow Begley manages to make Boies feel both real and inspiring. His speech before the Supreme Court is one of the better speeches I've seen in a film this year.

In terms of drawbacks I felt the film's dispersed focus harms it in the early portions. There are numerous characters and plotlines and I found the film didn't quite find it's stride until it began to focus in, perhaps thirty or forty minutes into the running time. Regardless I was impressed at how well Roach manage to juggle such a complex detail orientated plot. Perhaps there is some left-leaning bias, but regardless, I think Recount is a damn compelling recreation of the legal battle surrounding the 2000 election.

Overall Score: 8/10

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Senior Skip Day Review


Perhaps it's from 2500 words on Indiana Jones wearing me down but I just don't have much of anything to say about this one. Very easily this could have been an American Pie direct-to-DVD sequel in plot and sense of humor (which isn't praise really, just an observation). Gary Lundy, who looks like Ryan Reynolds crossed with someone who plays Dungeons and Dragons for six hours a day, seems to be trying to channel Van Wilder-style humor, and gets the occasional laugh. Whiny Tara Reid appears in a glorified cameo, unsurprisingly she's still a bad actress. Anyone else think she regrets complaining about returning to the American Pie sequel now? Lea Thompson is also present though she doesn't do much other than remind me how cute she was in Back to the Future. The rest of the supporting players are pretty terrible. The flick also, distractingly, constantly breaks the fourth wall, each time to the effect of killing whatever minimal immersion it had achieved. I guess it's not the worst teen-sex comedy I've ever seen, but I can't really recommend it at all.

Overall Score: 3/10

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Review


Note: I should mention up front that at times in this review I'm going to go into detail that will certainly ruin the surprises the film as to offer. The first section of the review will be basically spoiler free.

Appropriate Reading Music for Your Enjoyment


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

While rewatching the prior Indiana Jones films in the days leading up to the release of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it dawned on me that I fell in love with the movies watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Released when I was four years old, Last Crusade is probably my earliest theater going memory. It's funny for me to watch it today and remember my feelings from when I was actually in the theater - the Princeton Garden Theater on Nassau Street in Princeton, NJ - so many years ago. I remember Indy cracking open the library floor timed perfectly with the librarian's book stamping, the flood of the rats running from the grail knights' fire, "I love Venice" and, most of all, when, in the film's climax, Indy is seemingly thrown over the edge of a cliff on a Nazi tank. In fact I'm pretty sure the elderly couple seated behind me remembers too as I'm quite certain they'd have happily seen me drawn and quartered for my histrionic outburst. There's a magic in this series that is far greater than each film's objective quality.

Is there a more emblematic visage than Dr. Jones in a fedora? A more loved, or fitting, film theme than John Williams' rousing Raiders March? A more perfect casting that Harrison Ford as Indiana? Hell even the lettering of the logo has become symbolic. It goes without saying that nineteen years is one hell of a long layoff for a film franchise. Actors age, tastes evolve and moments so effective decades ago come off poorly now (melting faces in Raiders I'm talking to you). I was somewhat bolstered by the relative creative success of resurrections Rocky Balboa (a 16 year layoff for the series) and Live Free or Die Hard (12 years away). Still neither Rocky nor John McClane hold a place in my heart quite like Henry Jones Jr. and a hell of a lot can go wrong with nineteen years off (not to mention numerous ill internet rumors that cropped up over the years of production). So it was with a mix of glee and trepidation (though certainly more glee) that I approached Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I am overjoyed to be able to say I genuinely enjoyed the movie. Is it perfect? No. Is a worthy addition to the Indiana Jones canon? Absolutely.

Spielberg's first great decision here is that the first real shot of Indy isn't of Ford but rather of the emblematic silhouette of the jacket and fedora. I know I wasn’t alone in the audience when I felt a stirring in my chest at the image. And from there we’re off on another true Indy adventure. Harrison Ford effortlessly steps back into the role of Indiana Jones. The character has been allowed to age and just enough ‘old man’ humor is injected that it really doesn’t feel all that ridiculous for Dr. Jones to take up the whip again. The interplay between Karen Allen and Ford has every bit the life it did in 1981 and hers is a welcome return to the series. The film’s new setting, 1957, works far better than I would have expected. Shia LaBeouf is quite good and comes off convincingly as a 50s greaser and Cate Blanchett is very solid as the heavy. My biggest criticism is the use of digital effects, but they’re prevalence is nowhere near enough to hinder my enjoyment of the whole affair. All of this will be addressed more thoroughly below, but I definitely recommend taking another adventure with Indiana Jones.

*Massive Spoilers Below*

Now I’d like to get into a bit of analysis on what I think really hits and misses in Crystal Skull. Perhaps it would be wise to get the things I didn’t like out of the way first.

My first, and biggest, issue with the film is the ending segment. Not only is the film’s climax somewhat nonsensical but it’s horribly made. Though I wasn’t too keen on the idea of aliens in an Indiana Jones movie, when you think about it they really aren’t all that ridiculous compared to a 700 year old grail knight, the wrath of God melting the Nazis and Mola Rom tearing people’s hearts out, so I’m willing to give them a pass on the general concept. However, the film’s final scene is horribly made, not only is it confusing and preposterous but the visual effects are horrific (not to mention the fact that the whole scene feels rather derivate of the conclusion to the putrid Predator 2). The actual alien – who, strangely, seems to be the result of the thirteen crystal skeletons melding together? – is one of the worst CGI creations I’ve ever seen. I sort of felt like crying during the last scene, it felt as though all my enjoyment of the prior hundred minutes or so was being ripped away like so much scenery. Thank God for the final wedding scene and the Junior scene on the ruins afterwards which reminded what a good time I had been having. I’m appalled that the director of two of the greatest extra terrestrial movies ever, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the creator of the most beloved science fiction series ever, Star Wars, were incapable of creating a competent alien scene.

This, of course, leads into my other biggest problem with the film: the prevalence of far too much CGI. There are numerous moments where the CGI detracts from the overall experience: chiefly among them Mutt swinging through the trees (a concept misbegotten in every way), the treble waterfalls, the ants, Mutt’s balancing act between the two jeeps, and anything to do with the aliens. What didn’t help the effects either was Janusz Kaminski’s overly washed out coloration and lighting of the film. I’m also somewhat disturbed by how derivative of The Mummy’s scarab beetles Indy’s killer ants feel. Much in the way that Star Wars: A New Hope looks more ‘real’ today than it’s twenty-two year younger successor, The Phantom Menace, I worry that Last Crusade’s action may actually hold up better than Crystal Skull’s into the future. For as much progress as CGI has made, it’s still nowhere near the point where I’m ever entirely unaware I’m watching it.

My last complaint is that the film’s last act seems a bit overstuffed with characters with Indy, Mutt, Marion, Oxley and Mac all in the adventuring party. With so many actors and only two hours to tell a story it feels like some of the characters are rather underdeveloped (Ray Winstone’s Mac) or unnecessary (John Hurt’s Oxley). Also I’m, at least on only one viewing, somewhat disappointed by John Williams’ score. As one of my favorite composers I expect great things, especially considering his spectacular recent work in the Star Wars prequel trilogy – Duel of the Fates from Phantom Menace, the gorgeous Across the Stars from Attack of the Clones and the exciting Battle of the Heroes from Revenge of the Sith all stand out as spectacular new additions to the series’ musical library. Nothing in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so far stands out like that.

Ok, no more negativity, I want to talk about the many things that worked in this. For me the most satisfying moment of the entire film came from Indiana Jones facial expression when he first lays eyes on Marion Ravenwood again. It’s such an impressive display of genuine emotion and glee that it felt like everyone in the theater experience it. Having suffered through a traitorous Nazi and ::shudder:: Kate Capshaw since we last saw Marion, her presence is magical. Ford and Allen pick up their great repartee from their first moment on screen and the chemistry between the two remains twenty seven years later. It’s nice that the still pretty Allen, now 56, has aged normally. I shudder to think of Marion Ravenwood losing her great smile to the devastating effect of facelifts on her ability to properly emote (ala Meg Ryan). The film’s wedding ending was tremendously satisfying as well, Indy was always meant to be with Marion.

As far as I’m concerned Harrison Ford is as great an action star as will ever walk the planet. His resume speaks for itself in regard to action. He brings a great swagger to his roles and always looks believably tough, as a spy, an adventurer or even a gritty president. Also important is his physical ability in these roles, I’ve seen it said before that no actor takes a punch better than Harrison Ford and I certainly think that’s the case, even at the age of 65. Indiana Jones is one of the iconic characters in film history thanks to Ford.

Cate Blanchett plays a pretty great villain here. I was terrified of Blanchett playing a somewhat ridiculous character with an accent here after her putrid work in Soderbergh’s God-awful The Good German, but I’m glad I was wrong. Her Irina Spalko would not feel out of place in a Bond movie and I don’t think that’s a bad thing for an Indiana Jones in the 50s. It’s a fun role and Blanchett makes the best of it. Her predictable demise is made silly by the construction of the film’s final scene but it doesn’t take away from what a solid job she’s done.

I feel that Shia LaBeouf is getting a bad rep lately and I’m not sure why. He was the target of rampant internet criticism for his role in Crystal Skull – before anyone had seen even a single minute of the film, mind you – as Indy’s Jar Jar Binks (et al similar criticism). People, guys at least, just don’t seem to like him very much. Perhaps it’s because he is something of a dorky everyman looking type who is playing very cool characters or, perhaps, it’s because people choose to prejudge his talent by his Even Stevens and I, Robot performances. All I can say is that Spielberg believes in him and so do I. I liked his work in mediocre films Bobby, Constantine and The Greatest Game Ever Played. Disturbia was impressive work as he was tasked to single-handedly carry a pretty silly concept, which he did to such an effective level that it made the movie not only a surprise hit, but also a success with critics. I really enjoyed Transformers and I thought LaBeouf’s tremendous comedic timing really helped make the movie click. Here LaBeouf plays a really solid action hero in training. His great comedic timing is on display again – “what’re you 80?” – and he did nice work with the action scenes. His sword fight with Spalko between two moving jeeps is one of the best parts of the movie. LaBeouf really looks the part as well, from his hairdo down to his facial features he makes for a great greaser. Having put on 15-20 pounds of muscle for the role, LaBeouf seems tougher and manlier than in earlier roles which helps sell him as Indy’s son. The current buzz is that the Indiana Jones series may continue with Ford gradually giving way to LaBeouf over the next movie or two (so gradually, be it in one movie or more, Ford will move more into the role occupied by Sean Connery in Last Crusade and cede the primary role to LaBeouf). Alas Mutt Williams or Mutt Jones doesn’t have quite the same feel as Indiana Jones…

Something else the film did exceptionally well is capture the 1950s. The meticulous makeover of New Haven, Connecticut into the 1950s (Yale was the filming locating for Indy’s fictional Marshall College) is absolutely superb. During the motorcycle escape scene, one of the film’s simplest yet most exciting action sequences, I found myself looking around the background and I came away consistently impressed by how well the film fits the image of the 50s. Though the scene was somewhat silly, I got a kick out of Indy surviving the nuclear test as well. What’s especially scary is that it isn’t all that ridiculous for Indy to be that close to a detonation (might I recommend tracking down the superb 1982 documentary The Atomic Café for terrifying vintage footage of American troops on training missions beneath mushroom clouds). Even the casting fit well for the 50s, Neil Flynn, Janitor on Scrubs, in horn-rimmed glasses is perfectly cast as a McCarthy era fear monger. The quick and funny jocks versus greasers fight in the town café was a small touch of genius as well.

I could keep going ad nauseum about things I liked in the film so I’ll go with a quick list of moments that stood out to me (aside from the ones mentioned already).
- I loved the idea that Indy was an OSS agent during World War II; it fits perfectly with the character.
- The fact that LaBeouf’s character is named Mutt, a great play on the Indiana was the dog’s name joke from Last Crusade.
- The small tributes to Marcus Brody (the actor who played him, Denholm Elliot, has passed away) and Henry Jones Sr. (Connery is retired).
- “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!” prior to the aliens appearing was the perfect way to throw in a small Star Wars joke.
- The great moment at the end of the wedding when LaBeouf is about to put on the fedora only to have Indy snag it on the way out.

I’m grateful to have Indiana Jones back in my life. My love of film is, in large part, inspired by the series. If they make more, so be it, but I’m glad to have Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my favorite moment in the whole movie – I nearly cried I was laughing so hard – was when Indy is forced to use the snake as a rope to escape from the sand pit. What a great character. Time again with Indy and Marion was worth the wait.

Overall Score: 8/10


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Teaser

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Trailer


Raiders of the Lost Ark Trailer

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Trailer

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Trailer

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mad Money Review


I'm usually a sucker for a heist movie, both the good (Catch Me If Your Can) and not so good (After the Sunset), but Mad Money tried even my tolerance. It's a by-the-numbers affair with mediocre performances and poor production values. Foolish is the filmmaker' s decision to open the film with the various players already in police custody. Not only does the film lose that wonderful sense of 'can they really get away with it?!?' you hope for in a heist flick but it just makes everything so damn joyless - which is especially problematic in a heist film meant to be humorous.

Diane Keaton comes off as neither disinterested in the material not particularly invested in it. Her character is foolhardy, frustrating and basically unlikeable. I'm not so sure that anyone could have done anything with this role to save it. Queen Latifah, though she has a few moments that merit interest - when she lectures her children about not growing up to be criminals for instance - but on the whole is just playing herself. Much my to my shock the cyborg that has replaced Katie Holmes actually gives the best performance. Playing a free-spirited, though not particularly aloof, heist member, Holmes actually breathes life into her scenes. Her sense of comedic timing is spot on and helps make the whole ordeal somewhat tolerable. The supporting players are awful, with the exception of Roger Cross (Curtis Manning on 24) who at least seems to try. Ted Danson's performance as Keaton's recently jobless husband is embarrassing, especially considering his strong recent work on F/X's Damages.

Though it seems to be positioning itself as some sort of female empowerment film, Mad Money fails horribly in that regard. The film's moral seems to be that by acting amorally, but sticking it to the men, opens the route to a woman's success and independence. Now I'm not a woman, but that fails to really seem like the message you want to deliver. I can't really recommend this to anyone, not to heist fans, not to fans of the actors involved and certainly not to the average filmgoer.


Overall Score: 3/10

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian Review


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was one of my least favorite movies of 2005. I felt trapped in the theater for the film's overlong 143 running time. From the CGI animals to the stilted child actors the first Narnia film just didn't work for me at all. Having learned the three most enjoyable elements of Wardrobe were either absent (James McAvoy as Tumnus, the children's guide) or greatly reduced (Liam Neeson's voicework as Christly lion Aslan and, most importantly, Tilda Swinton's delightfully evil White Witch), I approached Prince Caspian with a masochistic sense of duty.

Much to my surprise I actually enjoyed Prince Caspian a lot more than its predecessor, perhaps because of the darker themes. Gone are the 'good' Narnians (fauns, CGI animals) fighting 'bad' Narnians (minotaurs, etc) and in their place are an evil bunch of humans who have all but committed genocide on Narnians. The plot here, set centuries, in Narnian years, after Wardrobe, is much more mature, dealing with the political intrigues of the ruling empire. Affairs are set in motion by the attempts of the evil King Miraz to replace rightful heir, Prince Caspian, with his own son. While I found this plot somewhat more compelling, it was far from special. Eragon cribbed the Lord of the Rings just as effectively as Caspian.

One of the areas that helped Prince Caspian, for me at least, was in the slight de-emphasis on CGI characters. While plenty are still present they don't hold as frequently important roles here as in Wardrobe. While CGI has come a long way, it is still very rare that it goes unnoticed (which is the ultimate goal). Many directors would be wise to look at the Star Wars series for inspiration in this regard: A New Hope, made in 1977 with intricate costumes and scale models, holds up better today than The Phantom Menace, which was made full of the latest CGI trickery less than a decade ago in 1999.

The battle scenes here, important to any epic, are a mixed bag. The film's climactic battle scene, feeling like it lasts forty or fifty minutes, is extrapolated from a mere three pages of Lewis' source material. Perhaps, Andrew Adamson missed what Lewis was goig for? The scene is mercilessly drawn out. Two action scenes come off more memorably. First is a one-on-one duel between eldest Pevensie, Peter, and the leader of the evil empire. William Moseley (Peter) acquits himself well as a swordsman but the scene is marred by problems in production and editing. Most effective of all action scenes is the attempted to infiltration of the evil empire's castle. The scene is not only visceral and exciting, but leaves the viewer with genuine emotion in its immediate aftermath. It is far more effective than the film's climax.

As in the first film the child actors fail to make much of an impression. Most effective of the bunch is Georgie Henley as the Pevensie sibling, Lucy, though I remain uncertain if her work is particularly better than her fellow child actors or if her character is just more appealing. Peter Dinklage makes the best impression of the supporting players here. Playing somewhat against type, Dinklage (Death at a Funeral, Find Me Guilty), as dwarf Trumpkin, delivers a wonderfully gruff performance. His delivery works both as a stone-faced comedic reprieve - more effectively even that Jackson's occasional comedic use of Gimli in Lord of the Rings - and as the soulful heart of the movie. If any impression is made from the acting here, it is certainly from Dinklage. Heavily hyped Ben Barnes is nothing special at all. Looking something like a long-haired Timothy Olyphant, Barnes lacks the gravitas to play this sort of character effectively. In much the same way criticism is pointed at Orlando Bloom in the Pirates series for not 'feeling' manly enough for the part, Barnes lacks that special something necessary to be an action hero. Why Brit actor Ben Barnes dons a foolish Spanish accent - he sounds like he's doing a ridiculous Antonio Banderas impersonation - is beyond me, none of his fellow evil empire-types speak with as ludicrous an accent. The quasi-relationship between Caspian and eldest Pevensie girl Susan also feels terribly misguided. In addition to the obvious age gap (Barnes is seven years Anna Popplewell's senior), Caspian's character seems like a 'man' while Susan is still a 'girl,' which make the flirting scenes somewhat uncomfortable to watch.

Like in Wardrobe, I struggled with the overt proselytizing of Prince Caspian. Why is it necessary to have Aslan ramble ceaselessly for the film's final fifteen mintues about courage, faith, self sacrifice and resisting tempation? Is the average filmgoer so inane that these worthy messages can't be gleamed from the film itself? Perhaps the film's most effective scene is when Peter is tempted to turn to the evil White Witch for help after a set back, does this scene not deliver the message of resisting the easy road? Does not Lucy's doe-eyed faith in Aslan, despite his long absense and the misgivings of her friends and family, effectively deliver the message of not doubting your beliefs? The last fifteen minutes of the film were so unbearable as to mar the entire experience for me.

Strangely, I actually hold hope for the next Narnia film (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Much like the Harry Potter series moving from a lesser director to a far superior one may help the series to grow. The first two Potter films were directed by Christpher Columbus and while they were adequate adaptations they were far from special, it took a far superior director in Alfonso Cuaron taking over to bring the series to its current heights (not to mention crafting one of the best fantasy movies of the decade). Perhaps Michael Apted (Amazing Grace) replacing Andrew Adamson (who prior to Narnia had only co-directed the first two Shrek films) will be the boost the Narnia series needs.

Overall Score: 5/10


Prince Caspian Trailer

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What Happens in Vegas... Review


Yikes, I feel guilty to admit this but I really kind of enjoyed this movie. The film is far stronger in the early going as it embraces a really enjoyable mean streak that makes the otherwise mundane material more than tolerable. It's also marred by a sophomoric - actually, what's below sophomoric? freshmonic? - script and poor production values, but is saved by some really nice energy and some laughs. At the very least the film's concept is somewhat different (though just as contrived) as other recent romantic comedies which make the early acts feel a bit fresher.

Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher have really great chemistry here, which helps make everything click. Their performances are far from taxing or award worthy but are certainly amusing enough. The biggest laughs here actually come from the co-stars: Lake Bell and Rob Corddry. Corddry, who I've never found funny before, gets a lot of the best lines as Kutcher's inept lawyer buddy. Bell, who was tolerable in the awful Over Her Dead Body, plays a delightfully nasty character and leaves the best impression of all the players. The smaller players, among them Dennis Miller, Queen Latifah and Dennis Farina, all deliver occasional laughs, but none does anything of note with the material.

The film's biggest problem is in the final act where it abandons the battle of the sexes mentality to disastrous results. Vegas falls directly into the cliche plotlines of every other recent American romantic comedy; oh no they're split up for some misunderstood and foolish reason? I wonder if the offending party will ever be redeemed by some melodramatic gesture... I found myself desperately wishing that the film would end pleasantly fifteen minutes earlier if only to avoid the inevitable cliched climax. The film is also rife with brutal product placement - why must every character conspicuously hold every logo on every product directly in view of the camera - and is, on the whole, poorly made in every aspect from editing to lighting to camera placement. Despite these many deep flaws I enjoyed What Happens in Vegas for the guilty pleasure it is.

Overall Score: 6/10


What Happens in Vegas... Trailer

Redbelt Review


There's something very detached and methodical about Redbelt that somehow manages to feel very long despite a running time of less than an hour and forty minutes. David Mamet, director of the superb Spartan with Val Kilmer, here directs a story of jiu jitsu gym leader whose principles are tested by all the corruption around him, elements of a legal thriller and a revenge flick are in play as well. In some ways the film's biggest problem is that the entire story is the effective of one event, an accidental discharge of a gun breaking a window in Ejiofor's gym, that is so poorly constructed and actualized that the whole project loses credibility.

Unsurprisingly the film's strongest aspect is the lead performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor. Throughout his career Ejiofor has consistently been a bright spot in films of a variety of styles and genres, despite frequently holding undersized roles. Children of Men, Serenity, American Gangster, Talk to Me, Inside Man and even shlock like Four Brothers have shown his skill. Here, present in nearly every scene, Ejiofor is superb. His character, who so easily could have become Mr. Miyagi, is believably pricipled and highly compelling. The rest of the film's acting is solid if unspectacular, of note is Emily Mortimer who is quite good as a lawyer with some issues (unfortunately she is the principle aspect of the aforementioned ill-conceived scene). Much to my shock the best supporting player here may actually be Tim Allen. Playing a privileged movie star, Allen brings a lot of life to his scenes; his verbal reparte with Ejiofor is surprisingly compelling.

The film's action scenes are at times short and brutally effective yet the longer fight scenes, especially the film's climactic battle, are overly drawn out and poorly constructed. Despite the strong lead performance, Redbelt sort of fell flat for me on the whole, however, and I have trouble particularly recommending it.

Overall Score: 5/10


Redbelt Trailer

Monday, May 12, 2008

Speed Racer Review


What the hell were the Wachowski's thinking? The 'masterminds' behind the Matrix fall further into decline with Speed Racer. The film is seemingly, from its immature humor, aimed at boys from the age of maybe 7-12, yet has a strangely dark worldview and really seems to push the PG boundaries (use of the word 'shit', use of middle finger, general violence). The Wachowski's really seem to struggle to balance humor aimed at the kiddies and the more mature plot elements at work; they'd have been better off making up their mind one way or the other and coming out as either a new sort of Spy Kids or going the other way towards the content level of a comic book movie. Further along these lines, who wants to take little kids to a two hour and fifteen minute movie? To say it drags along the way would be a momentous understatement.

The performances in the film are surprisingly strong, however. Emile Hirsch, who bores me generally, does a decent enough job making the lead role work. Christina Ricci, who keeps growing more and more attractive as she ages, breathes life into each of her scenes and seems to really have fun with the material. Matthew Fox is fine, but, in fairness, doesn't really have much to do while hidden behind a campy leather mask, likewise John Goodman is adequate if unremarkable. Susan Sarandon is actually quite good here; after a number of bored commercial performances of late (Enchanted, Rescue Me, Mr. Woodcock) I was surprised to see her do so well with this material. Scott Porter, of Friday Night Lights, makes an impact in his far too small role as the lost older brother Speed grew up idolizing. Again, the material he has to work with is junky, but Porter seems to make the best of it (as he did in the recent Prom Night). I'm telling you, Porter would make a great Superman in the future.

As I've already touched upon the film's length is highly problematic, running about forty-five minutes too long. The screenplay is garbage. The childish humor, often led by horrible young actor Paulie Litt (Speed's youngest brother, Spridle), garner hardly any laughs at my screening and served mainly to undercut the performances and the drama of the scenes in which they're inserted.

Aside from the surprisingly strong acting the film does have a few other positives. First of all is the film's wonderful sense of design and style. Crafted entirely on green screens and created in computers, the Wachowski's have designed a stupendous world filled with well designed cities and race tracks. I found their use of an almost dizzying array of colors to be an immensely exciting and stylish way to depict this world. Some may rightfully knock it for being garish without purpose, but I really think the extreme use of color helps bring the world to life. The editing and transitions are quite unlike other movies and also fit the style well, most effectively when the camera zooms in to one driver's cockpit then zips out of the first driver's car and into another's without the need for a cut; it's an exciting way to transition in action scenes (though I must say some of their other transitions, like talking head screen-wipes, are far less effective). Finally, as would be expected from the creators of The Matrix, the action scenes are exciting, superbly done and, considering the extreme visual style, are surprisingly easy to follow.

It's not the worst movie I've ever seen, but Speed Racer is deeply flawed. If you have any intention of seeing it I'd recommend catching it theaters and especially on an IMAX screen for the optimal picture quality and immersion.

Overall Score: 4/10


Speed Racer Trailer

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Teeth Review



Being a guy I have to say that this may be the most disturbing concept for a horror movie I've ever seen...the story of a girl with teeth in her...well, you know.

The film is, at its core, about female sexual empowerment told through a strange mish-mash of disturbing horror and absurd comedy. I've included both prevelant Teeth posters to help show just how undecided the film's crew is on what story they're telling. One poster is a comedic, almost lighthearted, take on the story with emphasis on bright easy colors and a humorous "Sex Changes Everything" t-shirt. On the other hand is Teeth's horror inspired poster of star Jess Weixler mostly submerged in a tub accompanied by the film's distrubing yet really amusing tagline "Every Rose Has Its Thorns." I found the horror elements, especially as a guy, to be really deeply disturbing and effective; unfortunately I found the humor generally missed the mark. Feeling not dissimilar from a Grindhouse movie in some places, I think the film's comedic elements sort of undercut lead Jess Weixler's superb performance.

Jess Weixler is a revelation here adeptly balancing a meh screenplay, the horror-comedy dilemma and a believable portrayal of a young woman struggling with her growing sexuality. Weixler's character, not so subtlely named Dawn, is a leader of a school 'chastity club' respected by some peers and ridiculed by many others. Weixler's ease at making her potential (and, to her at least, disturbing) feelings for another classmate a believable emotional battle, generally without needing words to convey a vast array of emotions. Her performance is easily the most effective element of teeth.

The supporting players range in skill from tolerable to awful. Some of the actors, as an aside, are undercut in their performances by Lichtenstein's comedic elements. The most problematic performance is John Hensley (generally a decent enough, if relatively unlikeable, actor in the consistently disturbing F/X drama Nip/Tuck) as Dawn's step-brother. His character is so absurdly asinine and intolerable that his scenes consistently drag the film down.

It's an interesting movie, worth seeing once for Weixler's performance and for some actual creative horror (a rarity in the genre); just don't expect greatness. This is Mitchell Lichtenstein's first directorial effort and I certainly look forward to seeing what he can accomplish in the future.

Overall Score: 5/10


Teeth Review